Striking A Notable Difference In Healthcare Since 2002

Barbara Carlton

What Taking Up the Harp Has Done for Me 
Learning to play the harp has brought music back into my life and provided me with a joyful activity to pursue in the years ahead. For that I am truly grateful.

Becoming a hospital-certified master harp therapist has given me the ability to share the gift of music and its healing qualities with others. This is a gift that I plan to share for as long as I am able.

As I make my rounds in the hospital, I am mindful of the sacred events taking place there, the joy of a baby born and the sadness resulting from the loss of a loved one.  If I can celebrate a new life, or provide tranquility and peace for those in distress, offer hopefulness for those who are concerned or sorrowful, or introduce a pleasant diversion for those wrestling with difficult decisions, I have fulfilled the purpose of my visit. To hear a patient tell me that the music I have created is soothing, beautiful, relaxing, or tranquil is beyond rewarding. It is their gift to me.

Music and Me, Before the Harp
Playing an instrument was not new to me. In elementary and high school I played the alto saxophone, but it was never “my” instrument. As a young girl I felt awkward about playing what I considered a boy’s instrument. The piano, my first musical love, had been too expensive, and since the school had a rental program for band instruments, I attended the music night in 4th grade to select an instrument. I asked for flute, but was discouraged by my mother who thought the flute would not be appropriate for this introverted child. Clarinet was my next choice, but I recollect the music teacher telling me that the saxophone would be easier to play. What did I know?  After all, I was only a kid. I settled on and for instrument number 4.  However, to this day if you ask my opinion, I’ll tell you that I think the band needed saxophonists.

And so I began my musical training.  The long and short of it is that I played the sax for about 10 years, all throughout grade school and high school, but was never good enough for first chair.  Honestly, I didn’t practice enough. It wasn’t the instrument that I really wanted to play and the sax was heavy. By high school I didn’t enjoy toting it with my homework and books the half mile or so to school each day. I continued playing the sax halfheartedly while imploring my piano-playing friends to teach me tunes on whatever piano was nearby. Playing the harp was never in the mix.

While studying elementary education in college, I was required to learn a basic knowledge of piano—mostly chording, similar to Edie’s Strike the Harp and Join the Chorus book and workshop. There I learned some very basic theory and received a copy of the Heritage Songster, a songbook I have to this day.  I bought an old upright piano and paid a music major friend to give me lessons when she was home on break and in the summer. But that was short-lived. After marriage, moving, selling the piano, and moving again, there was not very much music in my life until after my children took piano lessons. I finally signed on and took lessons for about two years but gave it up because the teacher expected me to practice more. With a growing family, what I had little of was time for myself.

The Path to Becoming a Hospital-Certified Master Harp Therapist
It wasn’t until age 55 that music returned to me in the glory of the harp. After a serious injury placed me in the hospital, I encountered the first in a series of three events that would lead me on a life changing journey. The first event was a visit from a Bedside Harp harpist. She entered my hospital room playing and when I heard the sweet sound of the harp, I thought I must be dreaming. Her stay was over all too soon when my phone began to ring and she stepped back into the hallway to give me privacy. Although I didn’t see her again during my stay, I was destined not to forget what I had heard and witnessed first-hand.

As I neared the end of my 6-month recuperation at home, I encountered the second and third events in close proximity of one another: I read an article in the local newspaper about Bedside Harp holding an informational meeting about learning to play the harp for one’s own healing and enjoyment, and I experienced a dream about playing the harp. That is when it struck me that this was a unique opportunity for me and it was not happenstance but a sign, a sign that I was meant to learn how to play the harp.

On the evening of the program, my husband knew that when I returned home, I would be enrolled as a harp student. He claims to have known it even before I did.  And, he has been my greatest supporter, despite his being tone deaf and his distinct preference for only 60’s music.

I began lessons in 2006 and by 2008 I was enrolled in the harp therapy certification program. Doubtful at first in my ability to do this, I was encouraged by Edie and other harp therapists who had already graduated from the program. My certification class of 13 was the largest to that date and the modules (workshops) were intensive. There was so much to learn and experience! It was not just about learning to play the harp and pulling in tunes by ear but about hospital procedures and what to expect in the hospital setting, reading up on related topics, and so much more! We learned about complementary methods of healing, and yes, we learned about dying.  We learned about caring for ourselves in order to care for others. Throughout it all we shared our thoughts and feelings with our new found friends, each on his or her soul-searching and life-changing journey, one unlike any other.

I remember beginning my internship and being filled with terror and self doubt. I recalled how, in an elementary school concert, I had flubbed a duet with another saxophonist. I had been so fearful of playing in front of a group that I froze, gripped with terror. How would I now be able to play for all these patients?  What if I played the “wrong” note or forgot what I was playing? Once I accepted that being a harp therapist was not about performance or perfection, but more of a ministry and a way to serve others, I began to relax a bit.  Slowly but surely, I completed my course work, accumulated the required number of playing hours, and prepared to graduate, first as harp therapist and then as master harp therapist.

Graduation day is always impactful, whether for oneself or others. There are kudos and honors galore but the most emotional event always is reciting the harp therapist’s oath of service. I have to hold back the tears.

Like the many others who have graduated this program, I felt compelled to embark upon this journey. Ask the others what brought them here—to Bedside Harp—and you will likely hear similar comments. Whether those are acknowledged as coming from a higher power, an inner voice, a sign, or any combination thereof, you will walk away understanding that each of us experienced a force greater than ourselves that guided us to this program. Although we come from diverse backgrounds, we are united as harp therapists to serve others in their time of need, using our harps and our training to provide comfort, relieve stress, and create a healing environment. We embrace the tradition begun by Edie Elkan in 2002 of “Striking a Notable Difference in Healthcare” by continuing Bedside Harp’s mission and making a difference in patient’s lives “one note at a time.”

Barbara K. Carlton, HCMHT